After Prison, A Tough-Minded Optimist Looks To Iran's Future

Feb 16, 2016
Originally published on February 18, 2016 7:58 am

Saeed Laylaz has had an eventful seven years.

When I first met him at his home in early 2009, he was a businessman, writer and former government official. He recognized some of the flaws in Iran's Islamic republic, but spoke optimistically about his country's direction.

Soon afterward, he went to prison for his political views.

Eventually, I heard he'd been freed. When visiting Tehran earlier this month, I heard he was even working again. So I went to find him. He was one of several acquaintances from past visits whom I tracked down during a recent reporting trip — and I discovered him still speaking optimistically about Iran.

"This is my country," he said. "I love it, together, good and bad, everything together for me."

Laylaz was working in what you might call Iran's Detroit — a complex of auto plants west of the city. His office was mostly bare, except for an Iranian flag and the flag of the company he works for, the Korean automaker Daewoo.

"I'm trying to survive myself," he said as we settled down to talk.

He explained that everybody must be clever to stay alive in Iran.

"And," he said, "I am alive yet."

A disputed presidential election in mid-2009 led to his time in prison. The election triggered massive protests. The clerics who wield ultimate power in Iran responded by arresting many Iranians, including Laylaz.

The suspects were not necessarily involved with the protests, but had associated with foreigners or spoken in favor of reform. Laylaz told us he spent nearly a year in prison, some of it in solitary confinement.

In 2013, a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, favored a new attitude toward the world. And an old friend of Laylaz soon hired him to manage this auto operation.

The Daewoo subsidiary makes buses and vans for Iranian mass transit systems. Laylaz says it has operated efficiently, despite economic sanctions.

"Our main problem in this economy is mismanagement and corruption, not sanctions," he said. "It has been my opinion many years ago, and it is my opinion now."

This man, once imprisoned for criticizing the government, is still criticizing the government. Like many people here, he believes branches of Iran's own state have made off with billions in oil wealth.

"I strongly believe that we lost around 3[00] to 400 billion U.S. dollars since 10 years ago," he said. "This is very clear for me."

Iran was doing something else, he said: driving out experienced economic managers like himself.

"The system will go to be empty from qualified people, because they cannot show that they are loyal," he said. "Do you understand me? This is the destiny of [the] former [Soviet Union]. This is destiny of Islamic Republic of Iran and every other ideological system in the world."

And yet, always optimistic, Saeed Laylaz has not left. And he sees good news in his own rehabilitation: It suggests Iran's ruling clerics have realized their mistake.

"They have to use me, they have to use my specialty," he said. "Otherwise they are not able to manage this country, without us — not without me."

Bitter experience has taught Laylaz to adopt a long view. He's not leaving his country, even though it put him in prison.

"I'm an Iranian guy," he said. "I've had more than 50 years [of] fantastic life. One year in prison is nothing against it."

He went on to take an even longer view.

He said that in 10,000 years, nobody will remember him — or his troubles.

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Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're reporting this week on what has and what has not changed in a handful of Iranian lives. Iran has been through an extraordinary seven years, starting with a disputed election, protests in the streets of Tehran, economic sanctions, and a nuclear deal. All those things have put the country at the center of world news. During those years, MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has occasionally visited Iran. And when he arrived this month, he checked back with Iranians who have spent these last seven years hoping for better days. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELLY: How many times have you been now?

INSKEEP: I've been four times over the last seven years.

KELLY: And what is it like to go back and see this country that almost nobody else outside of Iranians gets to see?

INSKEEP: You peel back layer after layer of this partly-closed society, this authoritarian country. But it's a fascinating culture. And each time you go back, you're trying to understand a little better what you see. You're listening a little differently and more to deeply people - to what they tell you, because people will often speak very frankly in Iran, but also what they don't tell you, because people also speak carefully.

KELLY: All right, so this trip you made it a mission to go back and meet some of the people you had met on those earlier trips. Tell us about them.

INSKEEP: They are all business people, the ones we're going to learn about again this week. And really, they're at the center of the story. There's a clerical establishment that's on top in Iran. It's not going anywhere, so far as we know. There's a military establishment that has a lot of power, including economic power. The question is, what's going to happen to everybody else now that economic sanctions are lifted, now that things may be changing? And so I checked back with people, including this Saeed Laylaz. He's a business person. He's a writer. He's also been in government. He was an advisor to a former Iranian president.

KELLY: You first met him back in 2009.

INSKEEP: I first met him - yeah, right before that disputed election. Went to his home - charming guy - and he was optimistic at that time. There was this election looming. Many people were pessimistic about it, but he wanted Iranians to get out and vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SAEED LAYLAZ: Frankly speaking, there are a lot of people who are hopeless about the future. And they are hopeless about the political system of the country for sure. But I believe we have no other choice to participate in the election.

INSKEEP: Saeed Laylaz was known back then for seeking reform in Iran. He believed he was supporting his country. But his position changed after that 2009 presidential election. The reform side lost, and Iranians disputed the results in mass protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Farsi).

INSKEEP: Iran's clerical rulers began arresting reformers, and those imprisoned included Saeed Laylaz. Later, I heard he'd been freed. And when visiting this month, I heard he was working again. So I went to find him west of Tehran.

LAYLAZ: This is my country. I love it all together - good and bad, everything is together for me.

INSKEEP: Laylaz was born 50 years ago in Iran. When we saw him this time, he was wearing a button-down shirt and black-rimmed glasses. He was working in what you might call Iran's Detroit - a complex of auto plants west of the city. His office was mostly bare, except for an Iranian flag and the flag of his company, the Korean automaker Daewoo. Laylaz told us he has a goal.

LAYLAZ: Trying to survive myself.

INSKEEP: Trying to survive yourself...

LAYLAZ: Myself.

INSKEEP: What does that mean?

He explained that everybody must be clever to stay alive in Iran.

LAYLAZ: I'm alive yet.

INSKEEP: What happened to you after the election?

LAYLAZ: I went to prison immediately for one year - almost one year.

INSKEEP: Why?

LAYLAZ: It is very clear - because of the criticizing the government.

INSKEEP: Then came a new election in 2013. A new president favored a new attitude toward the world. And an old friend of Saeed Laylaz soon hired him to manage this auto operation.

Was it a big risk for him to hire you?

LAYLAZ: Before that it was a bigger risk. But it is just risk - not big, not big one.

INSKEEP: This Daewoo subsidiary makes buses and vans for Iranian mass-transit systems. Laylaz says it has operated efficiently despite economic sanctions.

LAYLAZ: Our main problem in this economy is mismanagement and corruption, not sanction. It has been my opinion many years ago, and it is my opinion now.

INSKEEP: This man, once imprisoned for criticizing his government, is still criticizing the government. Like many people here, he believes that branches of Iran's own state have made off with billions in oil wealth.

LAYLAZ: I strongly believe that we lost around 3 to 400 billion U.S. dollars since past 10 years ago. This is very clear for me.

INSKEEP: And he said Iran was doing something else - driving out experienced economic managers like himself.

LAYLAZ: The system will go to be empty from qualified people because they cannot show that they are loyal. Do you understand me?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LAYLAZ: This is the fortune or destiny of former Union Soviet. This is destiny of Islamic Republic of Iran and every other ideological system in the world.

INSKEEP: And yet, always optimistic, Saeed Laylaz sees good news in his own rehabilitation. It suggests that Iran's ruling clerics have realized their mistake.

LAYLAZ: They have to use me. They have to use my specialty.

INSKEEP: Why? Why do they have to?

LAYLAZ: Otherwise, they are not able to manage this country without us - without me.

INSKEEP: Bitter experience taught Saeed Laylaz to adopt a long view. He's not leaving his country, even though it put him in prison.

LAYLAZ: I am an Iranian guy. I have more than 50 years fantastic life in this country. And one year in prison is nothing against it.

INSKEEP: He went on to take an even longer view. He said that in 10,000 years, nobody will remember him or his trouble.

KELLY: That's our colleague Steve Inskeep, who's been reporting from Iran. And Steve, just listening to you talk to Saeed Laylaz, I have to ask - do you worry about putting someone like him at risk - putting him in danger?

INSKEEP: I worry about that all the time when reporting from Iran because people do speak quite frankly. Ultimately, though, you realize those individuals are also making elaborate choices and very deliberate, calculated choices, it seems to me. They're picking their moments.

KELLY: Sure.

INSKEEP: There're certain things they're not going to talk about. There're certain red lines, actually - the phrase is used in discussing open dialogue such as it is in Iran. But within those limits, people will speak out as much as they can. And they're trying to say as much as they can without getting in too much trouble.

KELLY: OK, thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

KELLY: I'm looking forward to hearing the rest of your stories.

INSKEEP: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.